Amelia Chases a Dream in the Clouds
- Christian Hamaker Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
- 2009 23 Oct
DVD Release Date: February 2, 2010
Theatrical Release Date: October 23, 2009
Rating: PG (for some sensuality, language, thematic elements and smoking)
Genre: Drama, Biopic
Run Time: 111 min.
Director: Mira Nair
Actors: Hilary Swank, Richard Gere, Ewan McGregor, Christopher Eccleston, Joe Anderson, Cherry Jones
Amelia Earhart was, according to Amelia, the new film about the aviatrix's life, a woman consumed by one passion, and one passion only: She wanted to fly.
Like Dieter Dengler in Rescue Dawn, the Kansas native falls in love with the idea of flight while a child, then gets the opportunity to pursue her dream as an adult. Like Dengler, she faces institutional resistance, but not from the military or from warriors in another land. Instead, her fight is against sexism on the home front in the early part of the twentieth century.
It was a heady time in America, as the optimism of the Roaring 1920s gave way to the Great Depression, and as the public became fascinated with Earhart (Hilary Swank).
But while Amelia hints at a larger picture of American culture in the early twentieth century, it settles for something much more obvious and less satisfying: a narrative built upon the ups and downs of Earhart's romance with publisher and promoter George Putnam (Richard Gere). That relationship never generates much heat, and consequently makes for a largely unaffecting film. By the time the two lovers have their final conversation, knowing it might be their last, many tears are shed onscreen, but no sniffles could be heard, nor tear tracks seen, among the packed house at a recent preview screening.
The story of Earhart has the elements of a great, American biopic. Determined to fly across the Atlantic Ocean, she teamed with impresario Putnam to become the first woman to traverse the Atlantic—but only as a passenger, while men did the main piloting. Putnam sees it as a public-relations move, a way to catapult both of them into the Big Time, and it's here that the film hints at one of its underdeveloped ideas, still relevant to today's audience—the exploitation of public figures in a culture that wants inspiring, photogenic heroes. Putnam is the mover and shaker behind the scenes, and the more interesting character for exploring this, but the filmmakers didn't call their film Amelia for nothing. This is her story, not Putnam's. So we get images of Earhart in flight (scenery!), and of her navigator nearly falling out of a plane (action!), then a too quickly developed romance between Earhart and Putnam, then a romance with another man, Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor, who has more spark on-screen with Swank than does Gere), and a few more scenes of perilous flight.
Along the way, characters and themes of seeming importance are introduced and dropped without any rhyme or reason. For instance, Earhart champions more women pilots, and mentors one female teen aviator who is secretly ordered by Putnam to lose to Earhart during a cross-country flying race. The character of the teen pilot vanishes from the film soon thereafter.
Worse, we never get inside Earhart's mind. Swank does her most with the part, but we never learn more about her than her consuming desire to achieve her goals. Like all driven people, that intense focus is admirable in some sense, but when a person becomes so consumed by a goal that it wreaks havoc with her marriage and all other relationships, it's fair to wonder what void she's trying to fill. The movie has no ultimate answers, although in one intriguing scene, Earhart reveals that her father—the only man she ever loved "unconditionally"—was an alcoholic who disappointed her. However, instead of going deeper into Earhart's psyche, the script uses this remark only as leverage for Earhart to enlist the help she needs in that moment. Religion and prayer aren't embraced by the principal characters, only devotion to goals, so the script adds a few more Earhart exclamations about toppling barriers and doing what hasn't been done before in the aviation world.
The film is at its best when it shows how Earhart's pursuit of her goals take her away from the man who helped launch her career and then made her his wife. Putnam's pain at the discovery of Earhart's infidelity is moving (and shows that Gere, after this film and Unfaithful, is getting quite good at playing the aggrieved spouse), and his desire to see Earhart leave behind her obsessive pursuit of aviation is touching. Yet even Gere's performance, with an accent that comes and goes, is somewhat problematic, and comes far short of making the film worth seeing. Further exploration of Putnam's ruthless business savvy, building on his comments to Earhart early in the film ("This is America—I'm obligated to make as much money as I can," and "ownership is the trump card" in business pursuits) would have been more interesting than watching him turn into a love-struck, emasculated spouse.
Considering the talent involved, Amelia should have been better. Director Mira Nair's previous film, The Namesake, was both sumptuous and meaningful, while her earlier Monsoon Wedding was a vibrant, multicultural celebration. Here Nair has taken on a quintessentially American story, with refrains that are meant to be inspiring—"Who wants a life imprisoned in safety?" and "Everyone has oceans to fly"—but which instead come across as empty. The film's best qualities are its sometimes lush visuals (by Stuart Dryburgh) and an aggressive but sometimes lovely score by Gabriel Yared—neither of which will be enough to keep audience members from flying for the exits as soon as the credits roll, if not earlier.
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- Language/Profanity: Lord's name taken in vain; "go--amn" and multiple instances of foul language.
- Smoking/Drinking/Drugs: A few scenes of drinking and smoking; an endorsement deal for cigarettes; a navigator with a drinking problem says it's never interfered with his work, but under the influence of alcohol, he propositions Earhart.
- Sex/Nudity: Kissing; Earhart sleeps with Putnam and Vidal; shot of her sitting by bed after sex, with sheets turned back, and Putnam shown without his shirt on, she in a nightie.
- Violence/Crime: Plane crash footage.
- Marriage/Family: Earhart marries reluctantly, then has an affair but returns to her husband; Earhart says she won't hold her husband to a medieval code of faithfulness, and that he shouldn't expect the same from her; during wedding vows, she says she can't abide the "obey" part; a betrayed husband finds his wife's love letter to another man, and reads it back to her.
- Religion: Earhart asks Putnam to pray for her, and when he says he's not much of a praying man, she asks him to tip his hat and cross his fingers; exclamations such as "Praise be!" and "Glory, hallelujah!" after a major accomplishment; when Earhart insists on flying through bad weather, a character tells her, "In a monsoon, you need divine help."